In this episode of From the Source, you’ll meet Nick Ripley. Nick works in the North Side at the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation’s free legal aid clinic, serving the LGBTQ+ community. Listen to what Nick has to say about how the legal system gaslights people with marginalized identities and what they know for sure about human rights, advocacy, and service.
Jourdan: You’ve heard the stories. The surgeon who had a lifesaving surgery when they were young and wanted to pay it forward, the musician, who saw the way an instrument sound moved a crowd emotionally and decided to study music. But for lawyers, it’s a little different.
Nick Ripley: Most of the people who end up in law school are fortunate enough to not have many interactions with the legal system. I had the privilege of not having much interaction with the legal system growing up.
Jourdan: That’s Nick Ripley. They live in friendship, practice, public interest law and in 2021 established the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation’s legal aid program. Nick serves as legal representation specifically for poor people being marginalized in society because of identity discrimination. Public interest law or public interest law legal representation exists, because legal counsel for civil cases is not a right. Globally, this is referred to as poverty law.
Nick: In poverty law. There’s a specialization. You have to be a generalist. People come in low-income people. They’re facing seven different problems in seven different sectors. The biggest push that got me thinking in this direction was, I was just feeling fed up in school. I was studying anthropology and I was studying poetry and music, and I was interacting with a lot of really brilliant people who cared a lot and wanted to talk about these problems. But I just felt like it was only talking. I just got so frustrated with not being able to do anything. So I sought the tools that would give me the power to do something because if I didn’t have those, I truly think I would have just spiraled into insanity.
Jourdan: The exchanges with classmates and the socio-political climate of law and justice in the spring of 2020 across the country helped Nick to choose their field of law and who they wanted to work with. Nick wouldn’t have to look very far.
Nick: And I just, I don’t know if it’s an interest as much as more like a need. Like the more I was in law school, the more I realize, like I need to be involved with my community. I need any queer and trans folks around, and that’s who I want to help because we have these rights on the books. But, if you don’t have a lawyer to pursue them for you, you don’t actually have them.
Jourdan: The coronavirus pandemic delayed Nick from taking the bar exam. Licenseless and jobless, Nick set out to find the organization and fiscal sponsors who could bring the idea for a free need-based civil legal aid services clinic. Nick envisioned it as a service for low income LGBTQ+ and HIV positive people on cases involving identity document support, public benefits counseling, housing support, and civil expungement of criminal records. Nick secured three sponsors to run the clinic.
Jourdan: Listen to what Nick has to say about how the legal system gaslights people with marginalized identities and what they knew for sure about human rights, advocacy, and service. This is from the source episode five. Meet Nicholas Ripley.
Nick: I’ve represented different clients as a student attorney. I represented families that were separated at the border under the Trump administration’s family separation policy. I represented people who were claiming asylum from countries in Central and East Asia who were being tortured by the military. But there’s something about working with client populations that are in your community. It just hits different. There’s no way mentally preparing for it. You have to work harder at creating boundaries. And I mean, honestly, you have to pay attention to secondary PTSD.
Jourdan: So one thing I think I want to kind of get into is this idea of being involved in something, being involved in the creation of something, being involved in the day-to-day building of something and decision making and planning and execution. I think in essence, like sure, people believe that everyone should have equal protection under the law. People believe that we’re getting closer to this idea of justice that we want to extend to everyone. But then there’s the realities of that. And sometimes when you get involved in work, you see that there are more issues and roadblocks than there are solutions. Was that the case when you started to look at domestically, where the LGBTQ+ community stood in terms of having options for legal aid and support when it came to the issues at the Hugh Lane Wellness Clinic focuses on? Or was it more, we’re going to do this? Great. We’re going to fulfill this need, and there wasn’t like an uncovering of more issues and more problems and more disconnections and intersecting issues and complications and drought in resources and things in this region.
Nick: Oh God, I mean, definitely the former. I mean, to get into it a little bit luckily, I went to American University and they have a pretty strong public interest training program. And they did prepare us a bit for this, in that I did learn coming in that if you’re going into legal aid or public interest law, you have to be ready to fail because you’re going to fail. The way our system is set up, we have Gideon, the case that guaranteed access, or not access, just the lawyer. The word access gets tricky, but the right to a lawyer and civil cases. There’s no civil Gideon. If you’re being unlawfully evicted, discriminated against, cheated on debt or any of these civil issues, you have no right to a lawyer. And the government doesn’t adequately fund this need. Some of the studies I’ve seen, estimate that around 90 percent of people with valid civil legal claims don’t get a lawyer and their claims just expire in broad daylight. We are just scratching the surface of the valid legal claims that are in our system. We have laws on the books, but if people can’t afford a lawyer or don’t even know that their rights are being violated, those laws mean nothing. Our biggest two intake sections are the name and gender marker changes and the housing problems. But when we started this, this clinic, we were really responding to COVID and the COVID protections that were still in place. We could file a CDC declaration, for example, and get an eviction hearing stayed. And that was running while there was something there, and now we’ve just had rug after rug pulled out on these COVID protections.
Jourdan: We’re already talking about extra marginalized folk, right, who have been told so many things about their existence and their humanity and what they should be, what they’re not, how they’re missing the mark. How do you encourage people to really buy into the help that the clinic can provide?
Nick: So this is actually one of my favorite parts about doing direct client services is that, empowerment about people’s rights and I do. It’s one of my favorite things about my job, honestly. There’s something about having someone hear you out, say I believe you, you’re right, your outrage is warranted, your rights were violated and being able to provide that, just that, we provide more, but just to talk about that part of it, is huge. Especially when that person listening to you, speaks your language, knows culturally, the systems that are at play. One, I find that when these conversations are happening in community, it’s just so much more efficient. We don’t have to moderate our language to the sort of cis, hetero, patriarchal ideals. I’ve seen people go from looking unsure as to whether, basically whether they believe themselves to, ‘No. This happened. This is wrong and there are things in place that we can do about it.’ Now in terms of those systems that are set up to serve, people are going to deliver results, whether they’re going to do it in an affirming way. Sometimes that varies. That’s something I prep clients for, like if you’re going to have to use your dead name during this process, we’re going to talk about that. If you have to go get fingerprinted, you might have to go to a police station, and you’re going to need to set up someone safe to go with. All these parts of the legal processes that are not affirming are things that we can prepare for, but those meetings where I’m collecting fact patterns, I try to make that an affirming space, and when it works well, it’s just, it can be a really great experience and you can see people start to think more about the future in a hopeful way, just by feeling validated legally.
Jourdan: It’s been said that Pittsburgh has like an old dated way of addressing issues that when it comes down to government, and also that there are other cities and neighboring towns, sister cities, whatever, what have you that’ve already figured out new ways of doing things or creating bridges that bring together an old way of doing something that could be redirected to a new outcome or a different outcome when it comes to systems and justice and processes. Like why aren’t these things coming together in the city?
Nick: Yeah, I mean, and when you think about it, unfortunately, with how legalized our medical system is, it makes sense to have lawyers in the same roof because working with insurance is getting those reimbursements, telling other hospitals to stop billing because they’re not legally allowed. Those are all things that just make sense. And then on the other end, being in direct contact with the medical providers, it makes it so much more efficient to get medical evidence that’s needed for so many legal claims, especially in the public benefits area. And then on the specialized LGBTQ care part, that division between your lawyer and your doctor, can be a roadblock for some people in pursuing name and gender marker changes. So being able to do that in-house without playing phone tag between the doctor and lawyer, it really simplifies the process and makes getting affirming documents a much more accessible process.
Jourdan: There’s obviously something to be said for like people having the space and feeling safe enough to realize who they are, to go through the motions of becoming the person that they want to be or are meant to be or destined to be, whatever term fits for you, right? But then I wonder, like who has ever really, truly been free? Like, there’s always someone or something that’s going to challenge your perception of yourself or your decision-making when it comes to yourself and your safety and your identity. So is it more or less about like pushing the ceiling further up so that we can see more into the future of what that could look like? Or is it about completely abolishing systems right now and starting from scratch? Is it putting up some stilts in some palettes that will get us to tomorrow? So to put that into a question form with the clinic, with your intention in writing the grant and things that you presented to the Hillman Foundation and the other funders that you may have. Was this like a, We need this right now, or was this a, This is going to plant a seed for tomorrow or was this a, This is going to get us to another direction in terms of how we access freedom?
Nick: I mean, funny enough, it actually started in my head as more of a, We need this as a way of building long-term stability as a community in order to get out of this cycle of quick fixes that end up just tripping us up down the road or just disappearing grant funds that don’t make much of an impact. I sort of phrased it in terms of health benefits, but really just totality of life, quality of life improvements. Starting from, do you have food? Do you have a house? Do you have transportation? OK, now, can we get you to the doctor? OK, now, can we figure out some of these legal problems that are going on? I mean, that’s pretty much it. You don’t prove it in housing, like we have to be able to take care of those things first. This treating the total person as a way of, I mean, well, first, focusing on some of the most vulnerable people in the community, as a way of lifting up the community as a whole. Because when you start establishing secure foundations for people that are struggling the most, everyone benefits from that. That’s a rising tide. But then with COVID. I mean, it just became so dire, and it became a We need this right now. With the housing support stuff that was going on, The New York Times reported that I think it was 89 percent. It was somewhere in the 80s. So we’ll say, like 87 percent of the federal grant funding for housing assistance through the CARES Act was not getting distributed. It was just sitting there. And that’s because, honestly, the Democrats have embraced since Bill Clinton and means-tested paradigm for public benefits. And it just doesn’t work. Poor people do not have time to be collecting their receipts, doing their paperwork, going to representatives, filing forms in order to get the public benefits that they are legally entitled to, and especially in the context of an emergency. The system is fully clogged. Part of that was in response to getting people the aid that was sitting there ready for them and just was not made accessible.
Jourdan: And when you say it wasn’t made accessible, are we saying that the funds weren’t being released, or are we talking about those everyday challenges that marginalized people from LGBTQ+, specifically marginalized LGBTQ+ people faced?
Nick: Yeah. And this is sort of a strange case because usually there’s just not enough funding there. But for once, because there was a crisis, we got some funding, but people just weren’t getting it. A lot of people didn’t know about some of the relief programs that were available. If they did, they didn’t know how to apply for them. Some people don’t have access to technology or the internet, which I also think are going to be part of our human rights framework going forward because we see how necessary those things are. And then just in terms of, honestly, if you’re working two shifts for minimum wage in Pennsylvania, maybe you have kids at home, sitting down at your computer or waiting in line to talk with a representative to claim your public benefits: it’s not going to happen rightfully. It’s not made in a way to be accessed by the people who need it most. And it wasn’t getting out there and we thought we could help.
Jourdan: So this is a question that I typically ask at the end of the interview at the close of the interview. And that question is, what do you know to be true for sure?
Nick: This is a tough question. So what I know to be true is being part of the LGBTQ community, being queer is magical and empowering and beautiful. And for all of the depressing statistics we have to report for all of the news stories that get written, it really is a privilege. I’ve always considered it one. I think being part of any sort of marginalized community, I think gives you like a shortcut to, I guess the worst word I can think of is networking, because like, you have a community and it’s everywhere and you don’t have to talk to everyone in a new city to get your bearings. You can find the people in your community and work with them truly as a shortcut to get better acquainted, to feel more at home, to collaborate, to be able to communicate effectively and non-judgmentally. We know the answers to a lot of the problems we’re facing. We have some of the smartest people alive on the planet right now. If we were given the opportunity to, we could really turn this shit around.
Jourdan: Season three of From the Source podcast is produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you’re curious to learn how you can share your story with us or appear in an episode of From the Source, you can get in touch with me by sending me an email to Jourdan@Publicsource.org. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at publicsource.org. I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe and be well.
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